This page was created by Constance Caddell.  The last update was by Jeanne Britton.

The Digital Piranesi

View of the Colosseum (2 of 2)

Ascending from the worm’s-eye view of the previous image to a bird’s-eye view, this veduta, produced two decades later, presents an imaginary angle for the eighteenth-century citizen on a structure that is nearly impossible to depict. Indeed, locating the Colosseum’s intact wall in the background rather than the foreground produces a “perspectival distortion” that creates “the impression of a perfect circle” (Zorach 118) and suggests that the amphitheater is “beyond representation” (Furlong 112). This distortion is also a combination of three architectural genres—elevation, section, and plan (Wilton-Ely 1988, 44). The distorted scale, which shrinks human figures to “ant-like ciphers,” evokes “the drama of the sublime” (Wilton-Ely 1996, 172). While Piranesi’s depictions of ruins often celebrate the natural growth that covers them, and in spite of the astoundingly prolific botanical variety within the Colosseum, it here resembles a giant open crater, lifeless and deserted (Bacou 37) or perhaps “an extinct volcano, ... an eruption of the building genius of the Romans” (Scott 249). If natural growth is excised from this impossible vantage point, abundant annotations lead viewers’ eyes to the image’s trompe-l’œil captions. As such this image dramatically demonstrates an assessment of Piranesi’s works in general, which “defied the general cultural trend toward separating the informative from the imaginative” (Stafford 1991, 98).

At the center of the image is a Christian cross, and within the Colosseum is, as Piranesi’s caption indicates, a modern church. The full title of the image, “Veduta dell’anfiteatro Flavio detto il Colosseo,” distinguishes between the ancient and contemporary name of its subject. In a similar way, the focus and possibly even the appearance of the captions in this image emphasize imperial rather than Christian Rome. They appear on illusionistic scrolls, which, uncommon for Piranesi’s captions in the Vedute di Roma, suggest imperial proclamations.
Indicating the separate seating areas of “i Consoli, il Senato, i Sacerdoti, e le Vergini Vestali,” “l’Ordine Equestre,” “la Gioventù nobile co’loro Pedagoghi,” and “le Donne,” the captions stress class hierarchy and social order (Zorach 119). From the image’s domineering perspective down onto the amphitheater, viewers are encouraged to master the past through information. While Piranesi uses illusions of perspective and 
trompe-l’œil to heighten the Colosseum’s unquestionable display of imperial might, the numerous annotation markers also break the illusions of the image’s visual foundations. After the geometric regularity and expansive scope of this and the previous depiction of the Colosseum, the following view presents a radically different perspective, both visually and conceptually. (JB)

To see this image in the Vedute di Roma, volume 17 of Piranesi’s Opere, click here

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